I have now been witness to The Mistake by RespectAbility’s President, Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi; the unpleased reactions by disabled women of color; some thoughtful initial responses; a cringe-worthy apology-type product; the official statement; and now (I’m guessing), The Great Moving On from uncomfortable conversations about ableism, racism and disabled people of color within the disability rights community.
Part of me — the part that’s still polite to boundary-busting missionaries — initially wanted to say, “I’ve done this kind of racist shit myself. Sadly.” Then I remembered that much of that shit was when I was near the start of my career 25 years ago. When I would have lost my job — and Bi-Pap-providing health insurance — if I kept that shit up in our very progressive free clinic for gyn care. And how I had no safety net if I lost that job.
Everyone makes mistakes but the erring field is far from equal.
Depending on your class, Repercussions, Consequences, & Accountability are either the Three Furies that dog you even when you haven’t screwed up, or they’re the crisis PR firm you consider for damage control.
When you’re poor, unemployed, a woman, a person of color, a disabled person, or all or most of the above, making mistakes is far more likely to lead to words like “unqualified.” You are threatened with unemployment, fired, and/or are cut off from public benefits. In the worst case scenario, you haven’t made a mistake at all but are questioned, blamed, violated, beaten, shot, killed for being the person you are in public, in school, on the road, and at home.
When you’re affluent or “comfortable,” employed, a man, white, not disabled, or all or most of the above, making mistakes is more likely to lead to words like “executive coaching,” and “Let’s bring our communications person in to help.” In the worst case scenario, you “transition out” to what is often a better-paid job, aka “failing up.” If you are in a position to be a volunteer who has significant authority, the usual checks and balances on your behavior can be even weaker.
That’s when I first realized how integral money, class privilege, and power are to this recent incident. I haven’t seen any real repercussions, consequences, or accountability for Mizrahi — except for a bump to her prestige — and that’s just one infuriating aspect of how race and class insulate those with power.
If the grand success of the 20th century was the rise of disability as an accepted political identity, we intend for the 21st century to be the time when disability is recognized as the constant but hidden variable in nearly all formulas for global human rights. Including disability as a given factor in most people’s lives is essential to successfully advancing the rights of people who are members of minority communities, survivors of violence and/conflict zones, and veterans; people who live with chronic ailments and have survived catastrophic illness, people who are young and old; male, female, and anywhere on the gender spectrum. While disability has been understood as “different and divided” I believe it can come to be seen as “unique and united.”
As you sit sweating under an increasingly sweltering sun this day, feeling the inevitable effects of a wasteful attitude toward natural resources, you may not be thinking of another type of catastrophic loss caused by another type of massive denial. I speak of almost no one’s favorite topic: Disability. How denying disability’s central role in just about every human life relegates significant chunks of our lives — and worse still, people-sized chunks — to the rubbish heap. It may be that “disabled” doesn’t feel like a word that fits who you are. Fine. Have you ever felt vulnerable? Think of “vulnerable” as a gateway word to a chronic case of disability-speak.